ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

For his faithful fans, Vicente Fernandez is an icon, a living legend. And now, Mexico's king of mariachi has a new bilingual boxed set, and he has just launched his biggest U.S. tour ever. He's reaching out to old fans and hoping to attract new ones on this side of the border.

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Victoria Mauleon has this story.

VICTORIA MAULEON: By the time Vicente Fernandez arrived in Stockton, California, early in his tour, he'd already broken records. Stockton sold out faster than any other city, and the Fernandez show was the hottest ticket in the Stockton Arena's short history.

(Soundbite of music)

MAULEON: In the Disco Azteca, a local record store where Fernandez' songs are on heavy rotation this day, his fans have no trouble explaining who he is.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

MAULEON: The king of ranchera, pure Mexican. For Salvador Suarez to arrive hear from the Mexican state of Jalisco three years ago, it takes just a few seconds to recognize one of the tunes blowing from every speaker.

Mr. SALVADOR SUAREZ: (Spanish spoken)

MAULEON: These songs, called rancheras are considered Mexico's heartland music, backed by mariachi ensembles playing lavish arrangements heavily sloughed in strings. And Vicente Fernandez' operatic voice soars above, romanticizing the torture and splendor of rural life.

Disco Azteca owner Elva Sanchez.

Ms. ELVA SANCHEZ (Owner, Disco Azteca): (Spanish spoken) He's the most Mexican caboy around today. I mean, who doesn't know the song "Volver, Volver"? I think when most people hear "Volver, Volver," they think about Vicente Fernandez and Mexico.

(Soundbite of song, "Volver, Volver")

Mr. VICENTE FERNANDEZ (Mariachi Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

MAULEON: "Volver, Volver" or "To Return" catapulted the singer into stardom in 1976, breaking all record sales in Mexico. On the surface, it's a song about yearning for a lover. But, says L.A. Times arts writer Agustin Gurza, it resonated with his fans across the border for another reason.

Mr. AGUSTIN GURZA (Arts Writer, L.A. Times): It really appealed to the Mexican immigrant here in California because it has elements of nostalgia in the song, and you could interpret it as I'm going to go back to Mexico, and it's sort of this longing and yearning for the homeland.

MAULEON: Gurza says fans also connect with Fernandez' own rags-to-riches story. Before he became a megastar, he struggled to survive, taking a series of odd jobs, from dishwasher to shoeshine boy. Now that he's one of Mexico's highest-grossing artists of all time, landing an interview with Vicente Fernandez is like getting a sit-down with Elvis.

Still, despite Fernandez' 50 million records, dozens of starring film roles and a vast personal fortune, his fans perceive him as one of their own.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

MAULEON: And on stage, Fernandez is known for giving his fans his all. In his three-hour marathon performances fueled by cognac and cigarettes, the artist tells the crowd he won't stop singing until they stop clapping. With his gigantic cowboy hat, jet-black moustache and gleaming charro outfit, he projects the image of a powerful, passionate and fearless Mexican man.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. GURZA: That's his image and that's why people love him, because he appeals to people that are basically - a lot of people that come here as immigrants -very powerless with almost no ability to fight back in terms of their workplace or against immigration laws and that sort of thing.

MAULEON: Fernandez celebrates his Mexican pride in songs like "Como Mexico No Hay Dos," "Like Mexico, There is No Other," a song he chose to highlight on his new boxed set.

(Soundbite of song, "Como Mexico No Hay Dos")

Mr. FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

MAULEON: In it, he praises California's beauty, glamorous celebrities and fine wines, but prefers the tequila of his homeland.

(Soundbite of song, "Como Mexico No Hay Dos")

Mr. FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

MAULEON: And just as there's only one Mexico, there's only one Vicente Fernandez. Nearing 70, Fernandez may be Mexico's last great master of the rural genre.

For NPR News, I'm Victoria Mauleon.

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